While a cacophony of media outlets, political commentators, and Blair-led Blairite factions trip over themselves to denounce Corbyn as a political dinosaur still lurching through the hinterland of socialist ideals, crowds have been gathering in their hundreds and thousands to listen to him speak; debate and interest is being sparked among the young members of the electorate and membership to the Labour party has surged by 20,000 in recent weeks.
Corbyn’s appeal and what it says about our society is worth everyone examining – whether his ideas strike a personal chord or not. The first and most obvious aspect that attracts some to him is that he rekindles the dormant leftist fire and offers what appears to many to be an alternative to unfettered capitalism, promoting social justice and a defense of public services. Although decried as radical, his policy offering is nothing earth shatteringly new – but in the context of post Thatcherite Britain, with the road to electability for Labour also coinciding with the fast lane to the centreground, diversions to the left have become increasingly intermittent.
The voice he gives to sectors of society who have felt grossly unrepresented by the political mainstream for some time (the young, to name but one, who were overwhelmingly hard done by in the recent budget) further accounts for his appeal. However there is more at play than simply rejuvenating the leftist debate and giving disaffected people a voice
Corbyn’s offer – consistent since 1983 – presents a real authenticity (this tautology is now necessary given that the concept of authenticity has been hijacked by the inauthentic hoards, as Peter York has excellently noted). He is a man who who travels on the bus, who engages with his constituents, who presents a coherence between word and action. Whether you agree with his sentiments or not, it is worth recognising that this ilk of politician is as common as a unicorn in the modern world. Barring the odd expenses or illicit activity scandal, the majority of politicians tend to blend into one another in an insipid, hegemonic blur, carefully styled by Alastair Campbell’s disciples into the fixed smile-media savvy smart-casual type figures that answer all questions in an eruditely vacuous way.
Consequently, there is a desire for a politics of conviction in the UK. This was tapped into in the previous election by UKIP, whose unimagined support opened cracks to reveal a dark current of discontent bubbling under the surface of British society. Farage did much to present himself as your average, pint drinking bloke, “just telling it like it is, chaps”. He garnered the support of 3.5 million Brits at the previous election – in part because he legitimised a discourse of racism and xenophobia previously (and rightfully) considered wholly unacceptable, giving voice to bigotry all over the UK – but in part because he established himself as ‘real’. With his foreign wife working for him at the taxpayer’s expense, his expensive private school education and his colossal distance from the life of ordinary citizens, his brand of authenticity was as genuine as the proverbial nine-bob note, but the appeal was there.
The differing reactions to Farage and Corbyn are very interesting. Although what Corbyn proposes is by far the most left wing offering we have heard in almost three decades, it is hard to argue that the end of foodbanks, the promotion of affordable housing, rental caps and a reduction in homelessness are more extreme than banning immigrants with HIV from entry into the UK, scrapping sex education or capping immigration to numbers which would cripple our public services. Yet Farage’s stance caused both the Conservatives and Labour to employ hard-line policies on immigration, while Corbyn is largely met with ridicule.
It could be argued then, that a discourse of xenophobia is more acceptable to the mainstream than one of social justice. But again, I return to the idea that it is authenticity which is at the root of the situation. A figure who is authentic – who appeals to people on a human level, who amasses loyal supporters that genuinely believe in what they say is one of the biggest risks to a political system built on faux democracy and broken promises.
All over Europe we can can see this phenomenon writ large – Greece and Spain are two key examples where representatives of the people have arisen as politicians, and have felt the weight of the hob nailed boot of hegemony falling upon them. Fearful of change that inspires thought and connection to a system, dominant structures will close ranks against those who challenge the narrow basis upon which they operate. Rather than discuss, debating and challenging, the response is to vilify, ridicule, demean.
Satire is in the fabric of our approach to life in the UK, and our ability to laugh at ourselves and approach the world with a sardonic character is a strong one. But it is easier to ridicule than to reason, and in doing so, we lose the chance to debate key issues and to understand what is going on in our society.
If you see Corbyn as a political car crash, fine. But bring challenges against what you don’t agree with. If Corbyn’s ideas strike a chord, you should still debate the issues he raises and understand the weaknesses of his approach. But all should recognise that his name is on the lips of thousands of Brits and he has secured something which few politicians manage to – authenticity, genuine support and for many, a new found connection to the political system.
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